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The epitome of the principle has been the response to the terrible event that ended the lives of the 12 students working on the Texas A&M log construction for the annual pep rally bonfire preceding the football game with the University of Texas. I do not mean the outpouring of love, sympathy, sorrow, and grief, which was a touching and beautiful expression of shared humanity. I mean the views expressed that this was merely a tragic accident in the attempt to complete a very worthy project. Most of the voices that have spoken so far stressed how wonderful the project has been for the past 90 years at Texas A&M, how important the tradition is, how much spirit it both causes and demonstrates, and how it brings the campus together in unity of purpose, with a bond of affection and love for each other. They have said that the tradition should continue because of the good it accomplishes and because the students who died would have wanted it to continue. Even some, though not all, of the student survivors who were hurt in the accident say they want to work on next year's bonfire construction. Football coach R.C. Slocum quoted from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address at the memorial service, pointing out the parallel he saw between those who gave their lives in College Station for the bonfire construction and those who fell at Gettysburg.
I want to write first about this particular case, but only because it exemplifies a more general, more pervasive problem and perspective. The Gettysburg Address(2) was short, and bears examining, because the parallel will not hold, and the way it will not hold is instructive about misguiding values in general.
The American Civil War or War Between the States was fought over at least two important issues. Slavery is the issue most publicized, but it was in part a special case of a more general issue that has not yet been either solved or resolved -- the issue of what it means and what it takes for any minority (in this particular case, the Southern states in the U.S. Congress) to be seriously listened to and its needs to be fairly and reasonably addressed by a majority that has power, even in, and perhaps particularly in, a democracy or a representative government. What does it take in a democratic society to keep majority rule from becoming the tyranny of the majority? That is the question. And it is an important one because the tyranny of the majority in a democracy is not uncommon. Even those who are victimized by the tyranny of majorities in larger domains, and who ought therefore to realize the harm it does, in turn victimize the minorities among them in their own domains, not only when they are in relatively permanent power but even when they are only temporarily in power. Apparently something deep in the average human psyche, or at least the typical political psyche, when it is part of the majority, sees majority rule as license to do what they will, or as they are invariably determined to say the day after an electoral victory, "as a mandate." But it is not. There is no reason to believe that 51% of people should be able to exercise 100% of control over everyone. Various remedies tend to be proposed to make democracy more structurally or mechanically responsive to minority(4) constituencies, but nothing would take the place of real respect and compassion for the needs of those who do not have the votes to meet their perceived needs the way they would choose for themselves if they could. The issues of equality and tyranny are ones that affect everyone in any society, whether democratic or not.
(Civil) war is, of course, not a preferred policy instrument, but if one finds any merit in the view espoused by Patrick Henry before the American Revolution, that liberty is of greater value than life itself, one can see the point of risking one's life to overthrow slavery or tyranny. Oppositely one may even feel that holding a nation together is important enough to risk one's life. Whether these causes actually are worth putting life at risk is perhaps debatable, but even if one disagrees, one can at least see the other person's side, and one can at least see that they are important and valuable beliefs. One who disagrees with them can still respect them. The Gettysburg Address is not only about the significance of the sacrifices that were made, but the understood reasonable nobility of the causes for which they were made. Without reasonable nobility of cause, self-sacrifice, and the risk of self-sacrifice, are senseless, not sacred. Reasonable nobility of purpose is crucial for distinguishing between bravery on the one hand and foolhardiness or daredevilry on the other; between valuable risks and foolish risks. To rush into a burning building to save another human would be noble; to rush into a burning building to impress other people would be ridiculous.
The bonfire construction at Texas A&M has collapsed twice now since 1994. The first time no one was hurt, and the collapse was attributed to soaked ground from heavy rains. The safety of the endeavor itself was not questioned; and the first collapse was not taken as a warning of risk. Those who want to continue the tradition either do not take this second collapse as a warning of risk either, or they think the reward of the bonfire is worth the risk. I think that even without the two collapses, the nature of the project itself conveys some risk. The two collapses ought to amplify or fully demonstrate the point. So I only want to examine the view that the reward is worth the risk -- the reward having been described essentially as a cohesiveness of love and school spirit, a bond of union among Aggies, past and present.
The main questions, of course, are whether (1) there would not be a more worthy project that would do the same, or whether (2) there could not be at least a less risky project that would do the same. With regard to the latter, many people said that the candlelight memorial, and the thousands of notes placed on the pile of logs brought the students and faculty at the university, and the people throughout Texas closer together than anything in memory. Perhaps a candlelight memorial service every year would serve the same purpose, and be more effective than the bonfire.
With regard to the former, surely there are needed or significant construction projects potentially available in the surrounding area that would let students build something while they are in college in which they could take pride in having constructed and that will serve some far more useful purpose than making a tall fire out of a small forest of trees. Homes for the disadvantaged, a haven for the abused, a house of worship, a park or playground -- any of a number of possible projects easily suggest themselves as being more valuable than setting fire to something.
Otherwise there would be a surrealistic triumph of the totally absurd contention that not only is football more important than life itself but that pep rallies for football games are too, and that a necessary component of a successful pep rally is building a huge bonfire out of massive logs with student manual labor. If we were to take the entire Gettysburg address and spell it out completely in the form Slocum conceived of its significance, it would read:
"Four score and 10 years ago our fathers brought forth at this college a new tradition, conceived in youthful enthusiasm and dedicated to the proposition that we need to show spectacularly how much we want to beat Texas in football. Now we are engaged in a great civil debate, testing whether that tradition or any tradition so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
"We are met on a great field of contention of that debate. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a memorial place for those who here gave their lives that that tradition might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
"But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who built here have thus far so nobly advanced.
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this tradition under God shall have a new birth of bonfire building, and that bonfire construction of the students, by the students, and for the students shall not perish from this campus."
This would be a mockery, of course, not a parallel.
Is the university, and are parents, willing to risk sacrificing more students for this tradition? If, on average, two students were to die every 15 years to keep this project alive, would the college and parents consent to continuing it? If there even is a remote possibility another accident in the next 10 or 15 years would end twelve more lives, would university officials feel it was justified? Would parents feel it was just an unfortunate accident? Do students see it could have happened to them, and that it could next time if another construction is permitted? Is that the time and place they would choose, or even just be willing, to die, and the manner? Those are the questions that need to be asked. It is difficult to imagine rational people answering them in the affirmative. And if college students cannot be rational about this, university officals will have to make the rational choice for them.
It has, of course, been said that if one is not an Aggie, one cannot appreciate the importance of the bonfire before the Texas game. That is where the issue of "misguiding" values comes into play, because that statement could be true of any activity important in any cult, social organization, or society. And it is true in many. What I believe happens is that when people experience the joy and blessing of something "larger than themselves", something more important than their own daily, often petty, concerns, something "outside of themselves", the euphoria makes them forget to examine whether that "something" is worthwhile for anything other than the euphoria and joy it produces. If it is not, then it is not very different from a drug or any bacchanal or false preaching, false prophecy, or false praise that induces complacent or euphoric states of mind.
It is, I believe, important for people to transcend their own concerns and their own existence. But it is more important, I believe, that they do it for something that really is more important than themselves. They need to do it for that which really is good, beautiful, or true, not for that which is insignificant, insane, or, worse, vicious and mean. One needs to transcend one's self, but one needs to do it for something of transcendent value, not just for the sake of the miraculous feeling of transcendence itself. And ideas that only sound pleasant or that merely reflect wishful thinking are not ideas of transcendent value.
Solidarity and a feeling of belonging, or fitting in, are transcendent phenomena, but they are not necessarily of transcendent value. The conformity to social standards and to unconscious peer pressure(5) can result in a feeling of solidarity. And solidarity can be a powerful force, but it is just as powerful when it binds people in unworthy, trivial or evil causes, as when it binds them in noble ones. War produces solidarity among soldiers, but war is not a good thing; bigotry and racial hatred produce solidarity among the prejudiced, but they are not a good thing; religious zeal beyond all reason can produce solidarity among the self-righteous, but it is not a good thing. Even materialism and commercialism produce desires that, when satisfied, yield euphoria and a false sense of well-being and triumph. There are many false prophets. And there are many idols in society all too available to be worshiped as objects of transcendent value.
Another transcendent force is the feeling of accomplishment, sometimes even pride, one gets from having completed a task, particularly a task that was tedious or arduous and that was not inherently enjoyable. It is easy to mistake the pleasure of being done with the pleasure of having performed the task, particularly when there is some external reward given for it -- whether community recognition, praise from a boss, or a good grade from a teacher.
Joining into an activity rich in tradition brings together the joy of
accomplishment with the joy of solidarity (not only with one's contemporaries,
but also with one's predecessors). But these joys are the mere shadows
of real joy that I alluded to in the opening paragraph if the activity
or the tradition have no real merit or if whatever merit they might have
is offset by the harm they do or the unnecessary risks they incur.
1. I call this "misguiding" values rather than "misguided"
values, because the ultimate ends are good, but lead to the acceptance
of bad means that tend to diminish their value or to replace them altogether.
(Return to text.)
"We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
"But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining
before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that
cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here
highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation
under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the
people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
(Return to text.)
3. Being "created equal" not only means that no person
should be born into subjugation of others, but it also implies that everyone's
vote should count equally, which gives rise in many people's minds to the
notion of majority rule that allows "simple" majorities (those more than
50%) total control. There are other ways of counting votes equally that
do not give simple majorities such power. The Constitution of the United
States, for example recognizes the value of super majorities (e.g., requiring
a 2/3 vote or even a 3/4 vote), and of other sorts of checks and balances
- such as a Presidential veto, which makes the President's negative vote
worth more than up to 2/3 of the affirmative votes of the Congress. There
are other possible methods for counting votes equally without allowing
simple majority rule - one interesting such method is to require at least
30% concurrence with the winning vote by any recognized permanent minority,
so that for a proposal to be accepted, it must have at least some percentage
of approval by those in a recognizable minority constituency. (Return
4. "Minority" in the sense meaning those who are
outvoted by being (consistently) fewer in number. This sense does not have
necessarily have anything to do with skin color or cultural heritage, but
may also have to do with political philosophy or other beliefs. (Return
5. Unconscious peer pressure is probably the most
powerful kind. It is not the pressure by others to talk you into doing
what you don't want or what you don't think is right. It is the unperceived
pressure from within you to see value in the standards of a group and to
want the same things that others want -- things you would never have been
even interested in on your own. (Return to text.)
6. And it does not matter if from an engineering
standpoint the project can be theoretically safely built if safety standards
are rigidly adhered to. Unfortunately people do not always rigidly
adhere to ideal safety standards, particularly young people who have no
sense of risk. Whether the project can be theoretically safe is of
little consequence if it can not be actually safe. The two collapses
in six years ought to show the project cannot likely be made actually reliably
safe. (Return to text.)